This recipe for Spicy Sweet and Sour Shrimp is not overly sweet, nor sour, nor spicy, but is a perfect combination of the three. The light coating of rice flour or cornstarch gives it a nice crunch, just like in your favorite Chinese restaurant, but without all the fat. Simple to prepare, delicious to eat.
The making of Spicy Sweet and Sour Shrimp
As a kid, I loved sweet and sour dishes in Chinese restaurants. Sweet sour pork, sweet-sour chicken. I mean what was not to love? Big old pieces of deep-fried meat, which was mostly the coating and very little meat, sauced with a sickeningly sweet sauce with not much sour. Some overcooked bell pepper, with pineapple. YUM!
As an adult, not so much. Nowadays I want a more balanced lighter sauce, with a bit of spice to it, along with lightly coated proteins, so you can actually taste all the ingredients. So that's what I did here. Lightly coated shrimp, in a light, well-balanced sauce that is a bit of sweet, a bit of sour, and a bit of spicy. The vegetables are crisp-tender so their flavors can shine. With just a hint of pineapple to round the whole thing out.
Ingredients and Substitutions
- Shrimp - What size shrimp you use is up to you. I used shrimp that are 21-30 per pound which is considered jumbo shrimp. Smaller shrimps could be used as well as larger. And while I say, 1 pound of shrimp in the recipe, I generally count how many shrimps I think each person will want to eat, and then that's what I cook. Shrimp doesn't generally reheat well, so for this dish, I try to make just enough. If you are not a fan of shrimp, or have an allergy to shellfish, you can substitute chicken breast or pork tenderloin.
- Rice Flour or Cornstarch - While it's not necessarily necessary to coat the shrimp, I like a little crusty crunch on mine, so I used rice flour to coat them. Rice flour is a super light, superfine gluten-free flour that can be found in many stores, I got mine at my local Hispanic store, but it is also easily found in Oriental markets. If you can't find any you could make it yourself by grinding rice in a grinder, but easier, substitute the rice flour with cornstarch. It still gives a nice light crunch.
- Bell Peppers - You can use green (traditional), red, yellow, or orange. Or a combination of any or all of them.
- Onion - I use the workhorse in the kitchen onion, a yellow onion, but you could use Walla Walla, Maui, or Vidalia, all sweeter types of onion.
- Pineapple Chunks - Canned or fresh. If using canned you have the pineapple juice you need right there in the can, otherwise you will need to buy some canned pineapple juice to make the sauce.
- The sauce ingredients - More on this later, but really it's a nice combo of ketchup, pineapple juice, brown sugar, chili garlic sauce, and red pepper flakes.
Do I have to use Shrimp?
No, as a matter of fact, this dish is as delicious using either chicken breast or pork tenderloin which turns it into Spicy Sweet and Sour Chicken or Spicy Sweet and Sour Pork. The general directions are going to stay the same, the only difference being the time it takes to cook your protein. I suppose you could even use Tofu, using the method for removing moisture as I do in Ma Po Tofu.
Do I have to coat the shrimp?
Again, you don't have to, but I enjoy the crunch the coating gives. More like the traditional sweet and sour dishes you might find in a Chinese Restaurant. The nice part of this is the coating is so thin and light it just adds crunch without adding a lot of calories or fat.
How to make Spicy Sweet and Sour Shrimp
- If making with shrimp, be sure they are cleaned and deveined. For ease of eating, remove the tail as well.
- If making with chicken breast or pork tenderloin, cut into bite sized pieces.
Put the flour or cornstarch in a plastic bag, add the shrimp, and shake shake shake.
Should I use a skillet or a Wok for this recipe?
I actually prefer a skillet for this dish so I can lay my shrimps around and only turn them once, keeping the coating on them. If you stir-fry them in a wok, chances are the coating will come off.
How to cook Shrimp to perfection
To ensure the shrimps are all cooked to perfection, I use the "clock method" of adding foods to a skillet. Heat your skillet or wok to medium-high heat. Add some oil and once that is hot, start adding your shrimp. Starting at 12:00 and going around the pan until the sides are all full, then moving into the center. Once all the shrimp are in the skillet, immediately start turning them over from the 12:00 position until they all are turned, then remove them in the same order. Shrimp doesn't take very long to cook, and you don't want to overcook them or they turn rubbery. Rubbery shrimp is not good eats. Better a little undercooked at this point, as you will be heating them up in the sauce later and can certainly finish them there.
Use the same method for either chicken breast or pork tenderloin.
Shrimp, perfectly cooked.
Once all the shrimp are cooked, remove them to some paper towels or a rack to drain and set aside.
The Veggies in Spicy Sweet and Sour Shrimp
Pretty basic stuff here. Peppers, onions, pineapple.
This time I used baby bells, or baby peppers as they are called because I had them in the refrigerator.
What's the difference between bell peppers and sweet baby bells?
Well, a couple of things. First off the baby bells are sweeter, with a less vegetative taste to them. Second, baby bells have thinner skin than their big brother (sister?) counterparts. Because of that, I find I don't need to cook them as long so they can be more crisp-tender while remaining sweet.
For the onion, just your basic yellow onion. As I said, you could use a sweet onion, but I like the acidity a yellow onion adds.
The pineapple is Dole chucks in pineapple juice. I cut them in halves so they aren't quite as intrusive for each bite. But if you love big pieces of pineapple, leave them whole. I use canned, rather than fresh, since it's cooking anyway, fresh would get soft, and I need the juice from the can for the sauce. Should you decide to use fresh pineapple, feel free. Just buy a can of pineapple juice for the sauce.
After wiping out the pan, add a little oil along with the onions, saute for a few minutes then add the peppers if using baby bells, If using regular bell pepper, add them at the same time as the onion. Only about 2 minutes to cook the baby bells crisp-tender. Add your pineapple pieces along with the sauce and cooked shrimp pieces.
The sauce is where I did the most work.
I didn't want the sauce to be too sweet. I didn't want the sauce to be too sour. And I wanted some heat, but for it not to be overpowering. With some experimentation, I think I hit on the perfect combination of flavor.
The ying and yang.
Vinegar is important. Apple cider vinegar is the perfect choice for this dish. It offers a clean fresh sour element. Rice wine vinegar is too mild, in my humble opinion.
I used brown, rather than granulated, sugar. I find the darker caramel element added a nice roundness.
Ketchup. Ketchup has sweetness, sourness, and of course, adds color. To keep this gluten-free, use gluten-free ketchup.
Pineapple juice. Right from the can. Now that said, my pineapple juice was 100% juice, with no sugar added. If you are using pineapple chunks in a heavy syrup, you have added sugar. You will want to adjust the amount of brown sugar you use - and you've also added high fructose sugar - so I recommend you use 100% juice. Not sweetened juice.
As I said, I wanted a more grown-up sauce. Not the overly sweet sauce of my childhood years. So heat had to be entered into the equation. I started using some garlic chili sauce. And yes, it did add heat, but to get to the level I wanted, it also changed the basic flavors of the sweet/sour sauce. So red pepper flakes to the rescue.
This is where you have total control over how hot or not to make it. I suppose you could use some dried red chilies as they do in Kung-Pao, but then you have to remove those - you don't want to bite into that! But red pepper flakes do the same job, and no removal is necessary.
I think it's pretty perfect...but of course, feel free to adjust. Don't like so much sour? Add less vinegar. Spicier? Add more red pepper flakes. Thicker or thinner? Adjust the amount of cornstarch in your sauce.
It's your recipe. Just give me some credit ...
Try this with some Grilled Sesame Asparagus and Steamed Jasmine or Twice Cooked Brown Rice.
Easy Homemade Spicy Sweet and Sour Shrimp
- 1 pound shrimp cleaned, deveined, tail removed. (thawed if frozen); patted dry
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- ¼ cup rice flour or cornstarch
- vegetable oil for frying
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- ½ cup packed brown sugar
- ⅜ cup ketchup
- ⅜ cup unsweetend pineapple juice take this right from the can
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 4 teaspoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce found in the Oriental section of the supermarket
- ½ to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 - 2 tablespoons vegetable oil I use grapeseed oil or avocado oil
- ½ cup coarsely diced onion
- 1 cup diced bell pepper I used orange and red, but you can use any color you like; cut into about ½ inch dice
- ¾ cup pineapple chunks I cut the big ones in half
- Sprinkle the salt and pepper over the shrimp. Put the rice flour in a zip-top bag, add the shrimp and shake until coated. Heat some oil in a wok or large saute pan; when hot, add the shrimp, in batches if necessary, turning them once until just cooked and the coating is just getting a little crisp, about 1 - 2 minutes (do not overcook the shrimp or it will be tough and not tender). Remove each batch to paper towels when done, and repeat until all the shrimp has been sauteed, adding oil as needed. Pour off excess oil and wipe the wok (or skillet) clean.
- In a bowl, combine the vinegar, brown sugar, ketchup, pineapple juice, cornstarch, soy sauce, garlic chili sauce, and red pepper flakes. Mix well and set aside.
- Heat the skillet or wok over medium-high heat; add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion and bell peppers, saute for 2 - 3 minutes, give the sauce a good stir then add to the wok along with the pineapple and shrimp. Stir until bubbly and thickened.
The best thing about this preparation of an American Chinese classic is the extra bit of heat. The sweet and sour is balanced but that kick of red pepper adds new dimension to the flavor. And at less than 400 calories you can afford seconds!